Migrating to the Middle East in Search of Safety

It is an understatement to say that Muslim immigration into European countries and the United States has received considerable political and media attention. However, the statistics about Muslim populations and migration into these regions do not match the populist policy implementations and media obsession. As of 2016, Muslims made up only 4.9 percent of the population of the entire EU, Norway, and Switzerland. And although that percentage is steadily increasing, especially because of the Syrian Civil War, even at its most extreme predictions the collective Muslim population in Europe will not exceed 14 percent by 2050. In the United States, the estimated Muslim population is 3.45 million out of 330 million, 56 percent of whom have migrated to the country since 2000.

Still, in both regions, xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment dressed as economic and security concerns empowers populist governments to instill restrictions on migration, including for asylum seekers. In the United States, for example, even with the Muslim immigrant population constituting less than 1 percent of the population, the current administration frames Muslim refugees and migrants as an imminent security threat. These framings eventually led to what came to be known as the “Muslim Ban.” The global concern for controlling and ending Muslim migration into Europe and the United States has created a gap in information, both statistical and ethnographic, of Muslim emigration out of Europe and the United States. My ethnographic work examining US-citizen Muslim residents in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one attempt to demonstrate that Muslim migration flows are not one-way journeys from Muslim-majority countries to the so-called West. This work also demonstrates, contrary to popular thought, that migration out of the EU and United States into Middle Eastern countries is informed by migrants’ desires for safety and security.  

For Westerners and other white-collar workers living in Qatar, security is an important reason they choose to stay in the country, and they are only likely to leave if security and stability worsen.
In 2011, after I worked in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a year at a not-for-profit organization, I happened to make friends with an Arab American woman, Sara (all names are pseudonyms). After six months of friendship, Sara began to discuss a group of people who, just like us, had once lived in the United States but now make a life in the UAE. However, Sara shared little more about this group until 2012, when she invited me to the outskirts of Sharjah for a janazah (funeral) for one such US-citizen resident.

At this funeral, I learned that these people were invited to live in the UAE by Sharjah royalty in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More importantly, in 2003, a royal family member built a neighborhood just for them. The “American Neighborhood,” as my research participants called it, consists of forty 3- to 4-bedroom villas that are connected by a pothole riddled dirt road and secured by a chain link fence.

When I returned to the UAE in 2015 as an anthropology graduate student, I began to ask why these research participants chose to leave the United States and immigrate to the UAE, considering the difficulties: for non-Emiratis, it is nearly impossible to obtain citizenship in the UAE. This makes circumstances challenging for non-citizens, who are dependent on Emirati sponsors, must demonstrate formal employment, and must leave the country after they turn 65 years of age (the official retirement age in the UAE).

During interviews, members consistently mentioned five core families in the American Neighborhood. The core families were prominent members of Tablighi Jama’at (Preaching Party), which is how they first encountered the Sharjah royal family members who sponsored them to live in the UAE. Consisting of at least one convert to Islam each, these core families were central to the migration of other US-citizen Muslims, as well as Muslims of other nationalities, to the UAE. When asked why they left the United States and chose to live in the UAE, research participants provided a few banal reasons connected to their Muslim identity. These reasons included a desire to raise children in a Muslim country and wanting their children to learn Arabic.

The most substantive answer, however, was about their search for safety. During an interview in her family’s Sharjah villa in the summer of 2016, Zainab, an ethnically white and Arab US citizen, shared that her father suggested moving to the Middle East in the early 1990s to protect his three young children from the growing violence both within their neighborhood and in the United States at large. That same summer, Zahid, an African American convert to Islam, revealed that he had picked up a cocaine habit in the United States. His drug habit continued even after he became Muslim. For fear of hellfire as a religious consequence for his drug use and of being incarcerated under draconian drug laws in the United States, he chose to emigrate in the early 1990s. The next summer, in 2017, Sara shared in an interview that her parents chose to emigrate from the United States in the early 1990s because they feared that their young children would be kidnapped.

Participants’ concerns were informed by the United States context at the time. General violence peaked in the early 1990s, leading the Clinton administration to instate the now-criticized 1994 Crime Bill. The media hyper-focused on famous child kidnapping cases in the 1980s and early 1990s, like those of Ben Walsh and Poly Klass. By the early 1990s, a combination of draconian drug laws and the privatization of prisons contributed to the exponential incarceration of Black men.

Initially, many of these families sought out migration routes to countries that other Tablighis deemed safe. Fortuitously, early on in their search, the men in the five core families were provided jobs, and their families were sponsored by royalty to satisfy the country’s residence policy. As their community of Tablighi and US-citizen families began to grow through migration networks, a neighborhood was built for them. The establishment of this community, and its members’ ability to live in a neighborhood together, have provided my research participants with a sense of security and belonging.

A study by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) on the migration and retention of white-collar workers in Qatar suggests that these issues are not limited to the UAE. Qatar has sponsorship policies and demographics similar to those of the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Qatar and the UAE both have an 88 percent resident non-citizen population who must be sponsored by the remaining 12 percent citizens. SESRI’s research demonstrates that for Westerners and other white-collar workers living in Qatar, security is an important reason they choose to stay in the country, and they are only likely to leave if security and stability worsen. Hence, US-citizen Muslims who live in the UAE are not exceptional in their claims that they fled the United States for a GCC country in search of safety. Current events, which include the Qatar Blockade in 2017 and the rising tensions between Iran, some GCC countries, and the United States, may have adverse effects on perceptions about the region’s security. Time will tell if the region will continue to represent a safe, secure, and stable living arrangement for Muslim and non-Muslim European and US citizens seeking safety.

Shaundel Sanchez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Syracuse University. She received a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship in 2014. Her research uses an anthropological lens to critique security policies and their implementation.  

Cite as: Sanchez, Shaundel. 2019. “Migrating to the Middle East in Search of Safety.” Anthropology News website, August 14, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1242

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